The High North at the 2018 NATO Summit: A Missing Puzzle Piece?

By Kamil Szubart

On July 11-12, 2018, NATO’s head of states and governments met in Brussels to discuss the current security threats to NATO member states. The Brussels Summit was the third meeting, after NATO summits in Newport and Warsaw, leading to a security adaptation of the NATO Alliance to new strategic challenges in the Euro-Atlantic area after the 2014 Russian aggression against Ukraine.

“Despite that China has systematically increased its attention to the High North, Russia will remain the main military competitor for the Nordic states and entire NATO in the region in the nearly future.”

At the 2018 NATO Summit, politicians discussed fair burden-sharing demanded by US President Donald J. Trump, and they have agreed to reshape the NATO command structure by establishing two new operational commands—in the United States at Norfolk, VA, and in Germany at Ulm—to secure military movements across the Atlantic and within Europe. They also boosted cooperation between the European Union and NATO, confirmed NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan, launched a new training mission in Iraq, and balanced the Alliance present on both NATO’s eastern and south flanks.

All of these points were placed in the Brussels Summit Declaration, a 79-point document highlighting all decisions approved at the Summit. Unfortunately, not too much attention was given to NATO’s northern flank. NATO leaders kept up its 360° approach that applies to all geographical directions, including NATO’s northern flank. They also confirmed fruitful cooperation with Finland and Sweden. Both countries were invited for the Summit by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and looked forward to strengthening this cooperation (Article 52 of the Declaration).

But nothing was mentioned of the Arctic region, commonly known as the High North, which is a vital area for three European NATO members—Norway, Denmark, and Iceland—as well as for Canada and the United States, which are members of the Arctic Council. (The Arctic Council is composed of eight members: Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, and the US.)

Despite the fact that the High North is seeing currently peaceful cooperation, the growth of importance of the region and military capabilities of Russia could change this harmony. Therefore, Russian military presence in the High North demands a coherent response from the entire Alliance. Touching on this issue would help the Nordic partners, Canada, and the US strengthen security and prevent a prospective conflict in the region.

Russia’s Increased Presence in the High North

Europeans—ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of violence in Donbas—have observed the rise of Russian assertiveness and hostile activities against NATO alongside its eastern and northern flanks (including the High North). Russia has systematically increased its presence in the High North, focusing on the dispute on the Arctic continental shelf about natural resources and securing maritime routes and arming the region.

Russia’s militarization of the High North had accelerated dramatically since 2014 when the Russian Ministry of Defense established the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command based near Murmansk in the Kola Bay, which plans and commands military operations in the Arctic. On Nov. 30, 2016, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the Foreign Policy Concept (FPC), replacing a 2013 document. Authors of the FPC have highlighted the strategic importance of the Arctic to Russia and its foreign and security policy and indicated that the area could witness the increase of international competition shortly. The FPC also completes the Russian military and naval doctrines emphasizing the necessity to increase Russia’s military presence in the High North.

Russia has systematically increased military expenditures to strengthen both conventional and nuclear forces, which could be used in a prospective conflict along its northern coast and on Arctic islands. The Russian Ministry of Defense has particularly developed strategic submarines with Bulava missiles (putting into service Yasen-class submarines); strategic bombers (the TU-160); and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) measures compose of S-300 and S-400 missile systems to secure Russian military facilities in the region.

Alongside strengthening both conventional and nuclear capabilities in the region, Russia has regularly conducted military exercises of its Arctic troops, subordinating to both Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Military Oblasts. Morever, Russia has built and equipped four Arctic brigade combat teams (BCT), roughly 16,000 troops combined.

What Next for NATO, Scandanavia, and the High North? Some Recommendations

Despite that China has systematically increased its attention to the High North, Russia will remain the main military competitor for the Nordic states and entire NATO in the region in the nearly future.

On the eve of potential conflict in the Arctic, Russia will not respect the neutrality of Sweden and Finland due to their strong ties with the West and its politico-military institutions. It is highly possible that potential conflict on the Arctic would happen in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Therefore, it is necessary that NATO influence Sweden and Finland to join the Alliance in the nearly future. Denmark and Norway should also support the narrowing of ties between NATO and NORDEFCO and cooperation between NATO and the EU.

Conversely, NATO should remain a cornerstone of Denmark’s and Norway’s security and defense policy regarding the High North. Both countries need to strengthen the capacity of the Danish and Norwegian armed forces and their contribution into NATO’s collective defense, such as the enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland (eFP) or the tailored Forward Presence in Romania (tFP). Moreover, both countries need to invest more in their military expenditures (Norway currently spends 1.61% of its GDP on defense; Denmark only 1.21%.)

By involving in the enhanced Forward presence (eFP) in the Baltic States and Poland, Norway and Denmark will become credible allies to other NATO member states, and this strategy will help both countries pursue their national interests regarding the High North.

Neither Denmark nor Norway unilaterally should pursue a response to growing Russian assertiveness in the High North; instead, they should fully implement the deterrence and defense strategy (2D) and the NATO’s 360° approach. Therefore, the Alliance must keep its strategic engagement in all NATO’s flanks, including the High North. However, at the same time there is a need to continue dialogue with Russia in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Leadership from the United States is essential for Denmark and Norway to implement NATO’s enhanced northern presence, and both countries should keep and develop strategic ties with the United States.

Furthermore, to conduct effective operations in the High North, the Alliance urgently needs to adopt an Arctic strategy and ensure a common approach to the region’s security challenges. Although NATO decided to deploy four battle groups to NATO’s eastern flank and increase its military presence in Romania and Bulgaria, NATO’s potential to deter Russia remains insufficient. Regarding that, the Alliance must rapidly boost its military presence on its northern flank and have troops ready to be deployed to the High North, such as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and the NATO Response Force (NRF).

Maintaining the ability to a swiftly deploy the VJTF and the NRF troops to the region is crucial to improving NATO’s capacity to deter Russia effectively. Therefore, both the VJTF and the NRF troops must practice conducting operations in adverse weather conditions and severe environments, something that is part of the upcoming military exercises called Trident Juncture 2018 in Norway (October and November 2018).

Finally, all NATO decisions strengthening the NATO’s military presence in the High North must ensure military transparency throughout the 2011 Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty.

INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart was a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.

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